Monday, February 17, 2014

Weapons vs. Armor in Old School D&D, Part II

Two weeks ago I argued that each attempt in old school D&D to simulate variable weapon damage against different armor types was a failure. In the next few posts I want to look at why.

There were four such attempts:

1. Chainmail, 1971.

2. Greyhawk (or actually the 3LBB's plus Greyhawk), 1975.
3. 1e AD&D, 1978.
4. 2e AD&D, 1989.

(As I explained in Part I, Chainmail is included because it formed the foundation for the systems set out in Greyhawk and 1e AD&D. 2e AD&D is included for comparison whether or not anyone wants to quibble about whether it is really old school.)

What are the criteria for success? I would suggest three:

1. Realism. You want to realistically simulate how actual historical weapons  performed against actual historical armor.

2. Playability. You don't want the system to be too complicated or fussy.

3. Enhancing (or at least not impeding) weapon diversity. You want the system to give players more meaningful choices in selecting weapons. So, for example, if in the initial combat mechanic swords are almost always better then maces, ideally the new mechanic would give players more of a reason to (sometimes) fight with a mace-maybe maces are better against really tough armor. This sort of thing is almost by definition more "realistic" in that we know that historical medieval and renaissance fighters used a variety of different weapons. The criterion is also almost self-evidently true in that if all the new system does is to amplify trends present in the initial mechanic, it isn't clear that there is any need for it. For example, if a two-handed sword does 1-10 points of damage versus a dagger that does 1-4 points of damage, one might wonder whether there is any point in imposing an additional mechanic stating that against most types of armor a two-handed sword gets an average +x bonus, whereas a dagger gets a -x penalty, etc.

1. Chainmail

The relevant tables are given on p. 41 of the 1975 edition rules, and they pertain to the second of three separate methods for adjudicating combat-in this case the "Man to Man Melee" method.

Now, I actually think the Chainmail system is the least obvious failure of the four. It has elements of realism: maces are better against plate armor (or, rather, aren't worse, like most other weapons), slashing and piercing weapons get worse quicker against heavier armor-with the important exception that if you can knock your opponent over, you can then put a blade through an eye slit. And so on.

The two biggest problems are the table's treatment of the two-handed sword and the flail. The table implies that the two-handed sword is almost always more effective than any other melee weapon against any type of armor. In only two cases is it even tied with any other weapon-the flail (see below) vs. plate armor and vs. plate armor and shield. But this flies in the face of the historical record. It's true that medieval and later combatants would often use their standard swords with two hands, but the large 5-6 ft. long-two-handed sword was a somewhat unusual weapon-either a cultural artifact such as the Scottish Claymore or a weapon used by specialized military units such as elite renaissance Swiss and German mercenaries to lop the heads off pikes. It also incidentally served as a ceremonial sword for executioners.

The physics behind this is that large blades can't cut through metal any better than small blades. They might even be worse at doing so, if you can't wield them with as much speed or concentrate the same amount of force on a small point. You might be able to knock someone over with a large blade, but if so, you could presumably do the same with a wooden club or pole, or with your mailed fist, clutching a dagger.

The above claims are confirmed by the obvious fact that medieval and renaissance combatants didn't usually use such swords. But if two-handed swords were the "nukes" of Chaimmail and OD&D, why didn't they? Citing expense is no explanation, since if you could afford a suit of plate armor (and perhaps a horse), you could certainly afford such a sword.

One might object that OD&D is fantasy, and one standard fantasy trope is that the hero has a big sword (how much of this "trope" might actually be based on OD&D itself is another question). But whatever one thinks of this  claim, the fact is that Chainmail purports to be a realistic simulation of medieval (and renaissance and post-renaissance) combat.

The other historical whopper is the flail. It's pretty much agreed by military historians that the spiked ball at the end of a chain-or three balls or spiked balls at the end of three chains-wasn't ever used as an effective combat weapon (the few possible exceptions show that it was an experimental mock-up wielded by a few individuals, that probably didn't really work). There is evidence that farmers occasionally used threshing implements-a section of rotating metal at the end of a stick or pole-for want of anything better that they could afford or have access to in "peasant rebellions" and the like. But the idea of the flail as the 2nd most effective go-to weapon in medieval (or any other) combat has no factual basis whatsoever.

Why Gygax, who appeared to pride himself on his knowledge of military history, or Jeff Perren, the co-author of Chainmail, made these mistakes is anyone's guess. Gygax would pen long articles on subjects such as the "Nomenclature of Pole Arms" where forty-four somewhat similar looking (to the average reader) blades on sticks would be minutely described and analyzed. I don't mean to be prudish or inappropriately critical here. Chainmail is a fascinating and worthwhile game that probably contains many valuable and original historical insights. But Gygax and Perren just get two-handed swords and flails totally wrong. And since they appear to be the top two melee weapons, that sort of sticks out.

As we shall in the next post, the weapon vs. armor tables in Chainmail were the direct ancestor of the tables presented in Greyhawk. Ironically, however, it's unclear whether very many players actually used the tables in Chainmail, either for Chainmail itself or for resolving combats in OD&D. "Man to Man Melee" was after all a sort of optional add on to the standard "troop-type" mechanic of Chainmail. And though Men & Magic almost implied that Chainmail was the sort of default for OD&D combat-the "D20" system was labeled as an "alternate" mechanic-reports of early OD&D play suggest that it was the "alternate" system that very quickly became the default.

So does the Chainmail weapons versus armor mechanic work on its own (for, say, playing Chainmail)? Well, sort of, at least if one averts one's eyes from statistics for the two most powerful weapons. It does simulate some things, including little quirks like knocking one's armored opponent over and then jabbing him in a weak spot. One thing one can say is that the system does not appear to me to be overly complicated or fussy. In general, you simply cross-reference your weapon with your opponent's armor and find a number that you have to exceed on two dice. In terms of weapon diversity, the question is not really applicable. After all, Chainmail opponents are not really choosing weapons for their soldiers in the sense that you would outfit your character in OD&D. At the most, you're probably just using a point buy system to get troops already armed and equipped.

But in general, especially if looking at its impact on OD&D, I think you would have to characterize it as a failure.

In Part III we look at Greyhawk...


  1. I can't find it now, but I read an article (based on period training book) that showed full-plate, two-hand sword fighting techniques that used the long sword as grappling/pinning/prying lever to defeat platemail.

    Also realism, smealism. Flails are cool!

  2. Big flails were used by commoner militia, not elite warriors, they were too heavy and akward for continuous fighting but for a dozen guys cracking knights like lobsters they worked fine. One version was the goodendag (it wasn't a spiked ball on chain weilded by one hand however).

  3. Gygax, being of Swiss descent, had a thing for the Swiss and Landsknecht. The pike looping great swords were a big deal to him and thus get a bit inflated. I used to play Chainmail man to man skirmish a lot. You have to take those numbers in the table with the attack frequency by weapon size rules to get any feeling of how that table was intended to work out. The dagger goes stabby-stabby-stabby to one two handed sword whoomph if I remember right, and will go first in the second round if surviving the first round where length wins. It is one of the curiosities of Chainmail that number of attacks is dependent on matching up weapons sizes, so that dagger guy will only get one stab facing a mace. It's a bit murky when he faces two guys, like a mace and a two handed sword.

  4. Bah, looping was lopping until auto correct messed me over. Caught most of its manglings.